The reason called strikes exist is that, at a certain point, the game wants hitters to get on with it. If we didn’t have called strikes, hitters could, and almost certainly would, let pitch after pitch in the strike zone sail by, content to wait as long as might be necessary for precisely the right one to arrive. How many pitches would it take before you’d start shouting at the hitter to get the bat off his shoulder and just swing already? 10? 20? 100? No need to find out. Baseball doesn’t have a clock; called strikes serve just as well. You get three pitches in the zone. Three pitches you should be able to do something with. Three pitches, then you’re out, and someone else gets to take their turn.
But of course major league pitches in the zone are still extremely hard to hit. Major league hitters, who become major league hitters, at least in part, by demonstrating a consistent ability to make contact with pitches inside the zone, usually whiff on about one out of every six or seven strikes they swing at. Mike Trout missed about one in every 10 last year. So did 2004 Barry Bonds. Even the very best of the very best miss on pitches inside the zone all the time. Which makes it all the more amazing that Michael Brantley, who is admittedly neither Barry Bonds nor Mike Trout, made contact with 97.3% of the pitches he swung at inside the zone last year. Now, he didn’t swing at pitches in the zone all the time; he was discerning, swinging at 65.8% of those pitches, a number that takes a few pages of the leaderboard to click over to. And not all of the contact he made was necessarily good contact. But it was a lot of contact. Indeed, it was, by a fair margin, the best mark in baseball.
When I first learned this particular fact, which was just a few minutes before I started writing this article, I almost immediately asked myself a question about Michael Brantley that I’m afraid may be rather unfair to the man: What happened on the 2.7% of pitches on which he missed?
Let’s go back to September 1, 2018. That was the day the Cleveland Indians were playing the second game of a three game series against the Tampa Bay Rays in Cleveland, and it was a day — the last of only five such days this year — on which Michael Brantley swung and missed at more than one strike in a single game. I’d like to focus on the two he missed that day because they emphasize, I think, the utter improbability of not missing that same kind of pitch far more often. Here’s the first one (with some bonus Francisco Lindor):
That’s a good pitch. Blake Snell has a good slider. But it’s not like that pitch was extraordinarily outside the bounds of what big league hitters have to face every day. What Brantley probably should have done is to lay off of it, because the best he was ever going to be able to do was ground the ball weakly to the left side, or maybe pop it over the third baseman’s head and into left field. But that’s easy to say and very hard to do. When the ball comes out of Snell’s hand, it looks like it might end up somewhere just south of Brantley’s left elbow. Instead it ends up just south of the catcher’s left knee. This is part of what makes baseball hard. This is why only mis-identifying a pitch like this 22 times in a given season is, to me, stunning and worth writing about. Here’s another of those 22 pitches–the second Brantley missed that day (this time with bonus Donaldson content):
Here, you can see Brantley sigh a little bit. I’m not sure, but I imagine that’s because this is the same pitch he missed earlier in the game, from the same pitcher. That sigh is him recognizing that he had a whole three innings to think about what Snell did to him last time and he still wasn’t able to prevent it from happening again. That sigh, probably, is him recognizing that Blake Snell is an excellent major league pitcher and life just happens that way sometimes. And it’s the sigh of a man who’s come rather close to perfection in one particular skill in one particular game and has been reminded, if only for a moment, that actual perfection is probably unattainable.
I like baseball for a lot of reasons, but one big one is that its challenges are presented in discrete form, pitch by pitch. Pitches lead to plate appearances, plate appearances lead to outs, outs lead to innings, and innings lead to games. We can break the whole thing down into thousands of tiny moments and consider each moment separately. And players have that many more discrete moments in which to fail or succeed. Michael Brantley failed at one particular thing less often, on a rate basis, than any other player in baseball last year. He approached perfection in something that demands unimaginable skill to do well even once. He missed two pitches on September 1st, 2018, and they were fine pitches to miss. That he saw so many others like them this year and did not miss those is something to be proud of.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.